TechTalk: Dedicated fire truck repair facilities
February 17, 2023
By Chris Dennis
There has been a lot of conversation about electric fire trucks these days, but for this article, I’d like to turn attention to the very important topic of fire truck repair facilities. I am the apparatus division commander and chief mechanical officer for Vaughan Fire and Rescue Service in Ontario. This FD has a full-time crew of four technicians/EVTs, one chief officer and a clerk who works on nothing else but fire trucks. This is a proud division of people who give back every day, 24/7. Our job is to make sure the big red stuff can pump the wet stuff on the hot stuff as well respond to every call safely and perform without fault. Being a mechanical machine, and custom built specifically to a fire truck, has its challenges. The departments that depend on outside sources or internal municipal fleet garages without trained fire truck mechanics are at a great disadvantage. Here’s why.
The incoming electric fire trucks and related systems, as well as the apparatus we have now (both new or 20 years and older), are all specialized. I came from the private sector into the fire service many years ago. The evolution of the fire truck and its equipment has evolved no different than the world around us has: lots of technology. Bystanders see fire trucks with chrome, flashing lights, and sirens with women and men inside responding every day to an incident. They see it in their neighborhoods or while on vacation in distant lands, and recognize them all no matter what the colour, size, or design because of the common traits of emergency lights, sirens, striping and signage saying fire department. Brave firefighters put their selves on the line every day to make a bad day a better day in some way. Everyone in the department, from fire prevention to training, communications or mechanical repair, plays a critical role and have specific training. Comms personnel know communications, call signs, etc. Fire prevention investigates or educates purely based on fire department related issues. The education and skills each division have within their own departments is unique and this means a dedicated fire truck mechanic within your own department is required. I am with a full-time FD and familiar with budgets. If a full-time EVT is not doable because you’re a volunteer or a composite department, or even a full-time department without a budget or facility for a full-time fire truck technician, then look up and bring in an outside vendor that has fire truck repair experience and a proven track record. There are many across Canada. Ask for references. Speak to the departments they have serviced and are still servicing. Ask the FD what kind of work they do. Do they pump gas or fuel mobile? Are they willing to come out 24/7? Are they insured both to be working at your FD as well as liability for the work they perform? Do they specialize in a specific make of fire truck or are they well versed with all brands? Make it one stop shopping. Can I call this company to get break down repairs right away? Can they provide towing service and tire work? Can they do pump testing, ground ladder testing, nondestructive ladder testing? You have enough on your mind that you don’t need to call a bunch of places when the chips are down; call one number, they do the rest.
I have been contacted over the years from other departments looking for assistance; some direction. You may be a new fire chief or have recently become a firefighter-mechanic and are unsure what you are getting into and looking for some advice or support. You won’t be the first. Call your local FD find out who is doing their work.
The cost involved in today’s trucks is at an all-time high and too few people are coming into the trade of fire truck repair. Vaughan FD hosted Camp Molly in October. This is a camp for women looking at getting into the fire service and offers hands-on experience. I was honoured to be asked by one of our firefighters to give a brief presentation on the repair side of the business. This introduced the women to another side of the business, as well as educated them on the trucks and equipment they ride in. They were informed that this is a specialized form of repair and training for EVTs and is ongoing throughout their career.
Consider this scenario. You spec’d out a new build or researched a good used truck for the department. The team has qualified the needs and wants for the truck based on what is provided for the community. You choose your fire truck vendor and make the deal. The truck is purchased, and you wait until it comes in. In your spec or used truck purchase agreement be sure it is written in that the vendor will be able to provide the service or repair in the event a warranty repair is needed (or any repair, for that matter). Be sure you have this in writing. It’s bad to find out once you have made this enormous dollar investment that you can’t get it repaired quickly or nearby. Then it’s too late. The truck can’t just sit. It must be repaired. In this case, you end up sending it out to local truck shop and they perform the repair because it’s an engine issue and in their wheelhouse to perform, and submit warranty claim. Or they bill you because they have no direct connection to the OEM in any way. You pay the bill then submit it to the fire truck dealer you worked with only to find out they did not approve this repair first and won’t pay the bill. After all, they could have done it for less. Whatever the reason, don’t get caught up in this. If you already have techs in-house or a repair shop that specializes in fire truck repairs in your arsenal, especially one that represents your type of truck, it will be an easier pill to swallow once repairs start.
To have a mechanic specific to fire trucks is key, and even best on the payroll. Some departments hire operational suppression firefighter /mechanics that can perform two jobs. This is great. You have a person wanting to be a firefighter who comes to the table with a mechanic license and EVT certificates as well. Be careful that you don’t then keep them tied up with fixing trucks because they were hired to do both and they will quickly become worn out and bitter — there must be a good balance. Let’s say the firefighter is deep into a heavy truck brake job in the fire hall. A call comes in for a confirmed structure fire. The firefighter-tech must now get cleaned up, out of coveralls, into bunker gear and put on their firefighter hat. They do this all while getting paid the same as the firefighter- non-mechanic sitting beside them. I am sure it would only be a matter of time before that firefighter-mechanic comes to you with another idea. Fixing trucks won’t be one of them.
Years ago, this duality was the norm. We hired trades people that could put their skills to work for other things in the fire department. That is by no means is the standard today. Equality across the board and diverse group of people make a strong department.
The mechanic goes to school for three to five years to learn the skills required. Throughout that time, and forever in their career, technology is changing, and more training is required. Sound familiar? His or her license must be validated every year at a cost out of their pocket and on their own time. They must buy tools continuously to adapt to the changes. A full-time department may pay for all the extras. We need to hire and support fire truck specific technicians. You can’t send an automotive mechanic from the fleet garage or from a general repair shop to fix a truck without correct certifications. Well, you can, but you will get and live with what you paid for. I know of a fire department that sent an older truck in for its annual safety inspection. It went to a private truck repair shop with certified technicians. The repairs were completed and explained in detail to the officer overseeing the FD fleet. One of the repairs was a substantial welding repair done on the frame. The officer in charge of the fleet had sent their apparatus to this shop and had only ever questioned some of the services performed based on time and money, not what they did. Why would they? They put their faith in a certified repair shop. The certified repair shop may or may not question the FD on tactics they use in the event of an emergency. If you don’t know the business, how do you know what is right and wrong? In this case the officer in charge knew a few things about apparatus. The frame repair was not simple. It was huge. And even though the apparatus was older, it took the equipment out permanently. Had the officer in charge of fleet not asked the question to a certified EVT fire truck tech, this truck may have stayed in service. To have people in charge of the fire fleet, they too must have knowledge to ask the right questions. Clarify what repairs should have not been done, whether a fire truck or not. Liability means that always, and nowadays more than ever, requires skilled and trained people to do the job correctly.
Fire trucks, whether custom or commercial, are special to the kind or work they are designed to do. The apparatus on that truck chassis is what separates the commercial truck build from the custom truck build. To rely on the fleet department or outside repair facility without fire apparatus knowledge is a set up for costly downtime, money and heartache. Next time you speak with the truck technician of choice, ask them what the load management system is and how it works on your truck. Ask them if the truck is in service or out of service with a Class 2 leak. Ask them how often you should do pump testing or non-destructive ladder testing. Unless they have been there before, odds are they learn as they go. We do as well. The difference is we train to fix fire trucks every day to keep up with technology and the items added to keep the truck compliant and safe under the NFPA umbrella. Do what you can to set up good connections that are knowledgeable. If you have no choice, then maybe offer the EVT program (evtcc.org) to the repair shop or fleet manager so one of their techs can be educated. Make them a deal. They get two certifications under their belt and the fire department will pay for the certificate. It’s a small investment for the future of the department’s apparatus and equipment. I came from the private sector. I worked at Mack Canada and got my first taste of fire truck repair way back then. It was when I knew I wanted to be part of this big red, yellow, white, black machine…these rigs are all colours nowadays. I made it a point to know fire trucks and the fire service. They led me to where I am today. I am no different from the next technician. It’s nuts and bolts. However, these nuts and bolts, in my books, have a lot more metal in them. I am proud to be a mechanic first and then a fire truck technician .
In this era of technology and liability, just like hiring the right firefighters, have the right person to fix the truck. They should be well trained for the job. This way, if it ever went bad you would have a qualified person to lean on.
Remember my friends, “Rubber side down”.
Chris Dennis is the chief mechanical officer for Vaughan Fire and Rescue Service in Ontario. He can be reached at Chris.Dennis@vaughan.ca.
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